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News Brief: Vaccine Equity, Insurrection Hearing, Storm's Effect On Minorities

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States has surpassed 500,000 COVID-related deaths. It took about a year for the United States to reach that number, which is the highest death toll of any country on Earth.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Each of those numbers representing a life now gone. Josh Hollifield lost his father, Alan, a maintenance mechanic in North Carolina, just after Thanksgiving.

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JOSH HOLLIFIELD: The larger the numbers are, the harder it is to feel the empathy anymore. And I don't know how we make that empathy personal again because now - our brains are not good with big numbers.

INSKEEP: But making that empathy personal is how Carol McIntyre is coping with the loss of her husband, James. He was a retired bus driver in Pensacola, Fla., and died last July at age 70.

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CAROL MCINTYRE: It's like it just won't stop growing. And I know that there is somebody every minute, every second, every hour that's going through what I'm going through.

INSKEEP: Carol and James had been married 36 years.

MARTIN: At the White House and U.S. Capitol, flags are flying at half staff until sunset on Friday. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris held a candlelight ceremony last night.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The people we lost were extraordinary. They spanned generations. Born in America, immigrated to America, but just like that, so many of them took their final breath alone in America. As a nation, we can't accept such a cruel fate.

INSKEEP: The Centers for Disease Control now says that life expectancy in this country has declined by a full year because of the coronavirus. And if you break it down by race, it's worse for African American men who saw their life expectancy drop by three years. There's a greater impact on many communities of color. And that's where we pick up the story with NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Hey there, Yuki.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what are the barriers?

NOGUCHI: You know, it is a paradox that people most in need of vaccine are often also the hardest to reach. And there are, it turns out, lots of reasons for that. People of color make up a big share of the frontline workforce and the working poor. So often language and transportation can be barriers or access to technology or just finding time to book an appointment or stand in line as people have been doing. Some in the Black and Latino community worry about the vaccine itself. You know, there's a long history of medical abuse of people of color as well. But in some cases, their reasons can also be very personal, like maybe they haven't seen a doctor in a while and want to talk to one first. So I have this example out of San Diego. Christine Ramers is a doctor and executive at a community health center there.

CHRISTIAN RAMERS: Hesitancy is not just one thing. And in many cases, they're very unique to their own situation, like I just got treated for cancer or I'm on a certain medication or I've had an allergy in the past.

NOGUCHI: You know, and so answering those questions takes time, and that's at odds with the other goal in vaccination that you mentioned - speed.

INSKEEP: Well, assuming that people get over the hesitancy, I guess the next question is where they go for their shots. And I know the government and states are opening up these mass vaccination events at stadiums, conference centers. Does that give people a chance to - who are in these targeted groups a chance to get a shot?

NOGUCHI: You know, so far, the people landing those appointments tend to have a technology advantage. You know, they have more reliable Internet or can work from home so they can stay online and press refresh and get - you know, figure out how to get a slot, you know, because the supply is so limited. So that, again, tends to favor people who have some advantages, who are white and have means. Interestingly, this is true even when you put vaccination sites in heavily minority population areas. Ramers says San Diego County did that.

RAMERS: And yet even by physically locating the centers down south, a lot of those appointment slots are taken up by people that are from the north of the county and more technologically savvy.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, good for them that they get the shots. It's not a problem that they get the shots, but what are the centers doing to establish some equity here?

NOGUCHI: Well, you know, they're experimenting with what works. Many are using the phone to reach out to their own roster of patients so they can target vaccine outreach that way. They're handing out food at vaccination sites to reach people who aren't their patients yet. Or they're even contemplating going door to door. You know, Suzanne Lagarde runs a center in New Haven, Conn., and she told me this.

SUZANNE LAGARDE: I can't do 4,000 vaccines a day if my life depended on it - right? - but I can do several hundred. And I need to get to the folks who are not getting into the big hospital systems. It's much more time intensive, but they both need it. As a country, we need to do both.

NOGUCHI: Yeah. So like she said, I mean, as a country, we need to do both. But again, that's something that would take time.

INSKEEP: Really interesting stuff. Yuki, thanks so much.

NOGUCHI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

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INSKEEP: How were the Capitol Police unable to block an insurrection on January 6?

MARTIN: Two Senate committees are asking that question today of former security officials. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota chairs one of the committees.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: We need to get the information from people who were in charge that day and figure out how we can improve things.

MARTIN: This is the first of many congressional inquiries into the attack that left five people dead.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales joins us this morning. Claudia, good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are these former officials?

GRISALES: We'll hear for the first time firsthand from the Capitol's three former top security officials. That's ex-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving and his counterpart in the Senate, Michael Stenger, who all resigned after the Capitol attack. I spoke to Sund in recent weeks and again yesterday about testifying. Let's take a listen.

STEVEN SUND: Well, I'm just there to, you know, tell them everything I know about what - you know, what I knew at the time and, you know, all the planning I put in place at the time. So I'm looking forward to it.

GRISALES: Sund has consistently defended his actions, saying he was denied backup from the military days before January 6 because Irving said there were concerns about optics. He also believes the ongoing probes will show it's, quote, "a very convoluted, bureaucratic method of maintaining security in the nation's Capitol."

INSKEEP: Well, it sounds like these three may have slightly or even significantly different stories to tell. What about the other two?

GRISALES: Well, Paul Irving, the former House security chief, had a former Senate security chief, Bill Pickle, who served in the mid-2000s, talk on his behalf. Pickle told me Irving did turn down Sund's request over optics, but that's rooted in a long-running culture where lawmakers frown upon these kinds of requests. Pickle also said from his experience, Capitol security officials face a challenge having to answer to all the members of Congress. Let's take a listen.

BILL PICKLE: So the police have a tough job. They have 535 bosses, and every one of those bosses thinks they know better than, you know, law enforcement officials up there.

GRISALES: For example, Pickle said lawmakers have rejected requests for a more secure barrier, such as a fence, for the past 40 years. And when you compare the Capitol to the White House and the Pentagon, it's the most unsecure target. But as Klobuchar mentioned to me, they're just the beginning of this process. They're holding a hearing with federal officials in the coming weeks, and more hearings are expected to be held in the next couple of months to fuel these changes.

INSKEEP: Well, now, at the same time, they're looking back, of course, they face pressure in Congress to move forward. Are lawmakers moving ahead, confirming more of President Biden's nominees?

GRISALES: Yes. Some nominees are sailing through, such as Merrick Garland, who has solidified support as the next attorney general, even among Republicans. But that's not the story across the board. Neera Tanden lost support to head up the Office of Management and Budget from a key moderate Democrat. That's Joe Manchin of West Virginia. So she will need some surprise GOP support to see her nomination survive. And today, Xavier Becerra, Biden's nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, gets a hearing. He sued the Trump administration more than 100 times as California attorney general, and now he's facing Republican opposition.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, thanks as always.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

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INSKEEP: Millions of Texans are recovering from last week's winter storm. And how easily you can recover depends in part on who you are and the resources available to you.

MARTIN: Rebounding from disasters like this has historically been easier for whiter and wealthier communities. It's a pattern similar to the pandemic and hurricanes and floods.

INSKEEP: Joining us now is Elizabeth Trovall of Houston Public Media. Good morning.

ELIZABETH TROVALL, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So Houston, where you are, is, of course, a very, very diverse city. How are people recovering?

TROVALL: Well, the good news is that the power is back on and most people do have clean water again. But this has been a really traumatic experience. People are facing really high electricity bills and home repairs. Thousands are still under a boil notice. And the thing is, a lot of people were already in dire straits, people like Dina Chimilio. She's an Afro Honduran asylum-seeker living in Houston. I spoke with her at her apartment yesterday.

DINA CHIMILIO: (Speaking Spanish, crying).

TROVALL: Clearly, it's emotional for her. Chimilio is saying she's too broke to feed her daughters. She lost a week of work due to the storm and her apartment had shut off her electricity before the storm because she hadn't been able to pay rent. For food, she has just a couple of those cups of noodles right now.

INSKEEP: You must be hearing a lot of variations on stories like this.

TROVALL: Yeah, yeah. I went to an apartment complex in southwest Houston where a lot of refugees and immigrants live. People don't necessarily know where to get help. They realize they're on their own and really have to rely on each other. One family from Afghanistan, they had to go to the hospital because of carbon monoxide poisoning. They used a grill to stay warm in their home. And they say in Afghanistan, actually, it would snow a lot, but they almost never would lose power from it. Though the people I spoke with had power and water now, the complex repairman there had dozens of repairs to get to.

INSKEEP: What do you know about home damage in Houston as pipes burst and that sort of thing?

TROVALL: Yeah, yeah. We're seeing a lot of problems with busted pipes. Plumbers, of course, are in high demand. People who have homeowner's insurance may already be in the process of filling out claims. But for people who don't have insurance or maybe they don't have a great landlord, getting their homes fixed is a lot more difficult. I spoke with Chrishelle Palay about this. She started a nonprofit called the Home Coalition. They advocate for equitable recovery from disasters.

CHRISHELLE PALAY: Folks that are dealing with broken pipes and things like that, they can't turn their water on yet. So they have no running water. So there continues to be water resource centers throughout the city where folks are able to get water. But even that process has its challenges.

TROVALL: Palay says not everyone can get in a car and drive to these water resource centers. And she also says where she lives, a neighborhood called Kashmere Gardens, which is majority Black and Latino, a lot of people still have pending home repairs from Harvey that was three years ago. And now people are dealing with burst pipes and other water damage. It's really just overwhelming for them.

INSKEEP: Just amazing about Hurricane Harvey. Elizabeth, thanks so much.

TROVALL: Oh, thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Reporter Elizabeth Trovall of Houston Public Media. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.